Defining holiness

Defining holiness

He never returned phone calls. He certainly never returned e-mails. He rarely smiled.

He seemed to be acquainted with the obscenities and profanities of every known language.

Don’t get me wrong. He had many fine qualities, and considered himself to be religious, even pious. He would expound upon the fact that he found nothing in the Torah requiring one to return phone calls or e-mails. He even insisted that, at least in the written Torah, he found no objection to the use of vulgar language.

I knew this person, let’s call him Reuben, for nearly 50 years. I was associated with him in various capacities, and often worked with him on charity projects. Although he scrupulously investigated every cause that approached him for contributions, and he was very careful as to the causes to which he made contributions, I cannot deny that he was generous by almost all standards.

I must admit that I often wondered about his relationship with his wife. I did meet her several times, and she always appeared to be quite sad, even defeated.

Reuben died a few months ago. One of his close business associates, who knew him as a religious Jew, eulogized him as a person who exhibited holiness. “He was no saint,” proclaimed this associate, “but from my perspective as an irreligious person, Reuben was a holy man.”

Now, it is common, and even to some extent permissible, to exaggerate the merits of the deceased during a eulogy for him. But there was something about the adjective “holy” that I simply felt compelled to protest. It was certainly inappropriate for me to protest in public at the funeral, so I decided to use this column as the venue for that protest.

What does it mean to be holy? For the answer to that, we need to examine a verse at the beginning of the second of this week’s double Torah portions, Acharei Mot and Kedoshim. The verse reads: “Ye shall be holy; for I the Lord your God am holy.”

The two greatest commentators on the Bible in the Jewish tradition, Rashi and Ramban (Nachmanides), enunciate definitions of “holiness.” Rashi insists that to be holy means to be separate, distant, from various sinful exploits, especially sexual promiscuity. 

Ramban offers a different perspective on holiness. He writes that there is more to being holy then merely to abide by the rules and regulations of the Torah. Yes, he writes, it is quite possible to be a glutton yet not violate any of the laws of kashrut. True, he continues, one can use all manner of vulgar language yet violate no explicit biblical command. A man can observe every detail of the Torah’s laws about family purity yet not be a loving husband.

Holiness, for Ramban, consists of all those behaviors that are to be expected from a decent human being, even if those behaviors are not explicitly prescribed by the Torah.

Reuben was not holy. Indeed, he missed the point about what the Jewish religion was all about.

Our religion is indeed about obedience and compliance to a set of laws, but that is not all that it is about. It is about attitudes, and relationships. It is about ethical behaviors that need not be prescribed in the form of rules, but to be expected of every reasonable human being.

Some would explain Ramban’s thesis in terms of the age-old distinction between the letter of the law and the spirit of the law. Reuben is a prime example of someone who did not see beyond the letter of the law.

read more: